“We leave at two in the morning,” Bomal told me. We had been introduced the evening I came to Weligama, while he was sat on his front steps shirtless and swaying, a bottle of gal arrack by his feet. “If you are not at the harbour by two, we will still leave. Can’t help.”
By 2:15 am there was no sign of Bomal as I stood on the road into the harbour. By 2:30, I had slumped down against a gate. By 2:45 I had fallen asleep. At around 3, I became vaguely aware of a stray dog preparing to relieve himself near me when a figure sprang suddenly out of the night and yanked me to my feet.
“Don’t sleep here with the dogs, what is wrong with you?” He brushed cement dust off my shoulder. “Ah...you’re waiting for Bomal? Don’t know if that idiot will come even. Come, come, come...let’s drink a tea. I am also waiting for the fellows on my boat. Pricks who said we would leave at two. Still not here.”
My saviour was short and rotund, with thick, ropey forearms. He had on a chewed-up grey cap. Wisps of hair peeking out its sides were also grey. Having led me to the awning of his house across the road, he roused his poor, ancient mother, who had been asleep on the floor in the front room. When she brought us the tea in plastic cups, her narrow wrists shook.
“Always giving the wrong time these pricks, never here, what to do?” I may have learned his name. At that hour, it had not stuck in the memory. “You’re from Colombo? You must be used to being on time. The ass who owns our boat is probably lying drunk on the road. Woman doesn’t let him back in when he drinks. Big woman she is. Angry all the time. Get scared thinking of her, even.When she hits the children, whole village hears. Dhadaang! Come, come ... finish your tea. Amma! AMMA! Come, will you? Take the cups.”
Soon, ambling groups of fishermen began to appear; sarongs hitched up to the knees, scruffy shirts unbuttoned to the sternum. “Have you seen Bomal?” My companion would holler. They shrugged, drifting on towards the harbour.
When he did eventually appear, it was nearly half-past three. With Bomal were two others: my boat-mates for the day. I bade goodbye to the man who had taken me in and stood around uselessly at the beach as the three fishermen loaded two styrofoam containers into a long, narrow oruwa canoe.
We rowed out to the middle of the harbour and transferred ourselves and the boxes to the big fishing boat. The anchor was hauled up, a diesel engine puttered us out of port, and Weligama’s dim cluster of lights began to grow distant. Soon, the town had virtually disappeared.
It was not until later – after sunrise – that I could make out the details of our vessel. With a chipped sky-blue hull of fibreglass and a deck of slatted, greying wood, it was about 30 metres from stern to bow. The cabin to the rear was no larger than a standard bedroom closet. Inside were three sooty aluminum pots, a half-sack of rice, a single-burner gas stove, a biscuit tin filled with garlic, ginger, onion, chilli, and spices, a bag of sugar, and loose-leaf tea.
The bamboo mast at the centre of the boat rose to about three metres. Tied to it were several fishing rods and volley-ball sized styrofoam buoys that rubbed squeakingly against each other. In plastic boxes at the front of the boat were nylon long-lines fitted with steel hooks dangling from short, secondary lines every three feet. These boxes would be accessed constantly – the long-lines bringing in virtually all of the day’s yield.
Despite the very early start, I had boarded the vessel with confidence: I was sure this would be an idyllic maritime day. I would lend these men a hand with their labour, I thought, while they lent me an intimate glimpse into their profession, a manly bond forming throughout.
Perhaps they would even remark on how quickly I took to their work – a compliment to which I would respond with an unassuming smile and a line about how fishing was in my blood, see, so it was only natural, and really it is my forebears that deserve all the credit.
This, sadly, was not how it panned out.
On the calmest, sunniest day any seafarer could hope for, I was a constant saboteur of their operation. I fumbled, I interfered, I botched, blundered, and ruined. The only wonder was that they did not truss me up and toss me overboard. Though in fact, at times during the day, I sort of wished they had.
It was while the men were still catching cuttlefish in the pre-dawn that my woes had begun. While the others worked the long-lines, Bomal had fetched a landing net with a circular rim about the circumference of a watermelon, attached to a two- metre bamboo pole. He would crouch by the edge of the boat in the low light and, just as the white outline of a cuttlefish neared the surface, send the rim skimming across the water, flicking his wrists to snare the fish.
Over the course of five minutes, he made six sweeping splashes and missed only twice. I was not alone in gawking with admiration. “I’ve never seen anyone as good at this as him,” one of the other men announced from across the boat. “The cuttlefish are much too quick for me.”
Eventually, Bomal poked me with the handle. “You try,” he said. I wrapped my fingers around the bamboo and bent my knees. I held the net out over the water, and readied myself with slow, deep breaths.
My first dip was premature – the cuttlefish, still a distance from the surface – comfortably diving beneath. Overcompensating on the next attempt, my prey was already half-a-metre out of reach when the net broke the water’s surface. Third time, I missed by even further and, in my eagerness, managed to thrust the pole from my body, lose grip of the handle, and send the whole thing overboard. Bomal fixed me with a glare. I felt like I had just watched da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa then stabbed myself in the eye with the paintbrush.
Much simpler tasks would be bungled. As we reeled our first proper fish in, I was asked to break up the 15-litre cube of ice with a wooden stake, so that the smaller fragments of ice could refrigerate the catch in a Styrofoam box. Within a minute, I had snapped the stake clean in half. “I’ve been using that to break up ice for years,” the oldest fisherman, Amare, muttered. We were forced to do the job with its blunt remains for the rest of the day.
Later, told to fetch a rod tied to the mast, I grappled with the knot for several minutes, before one of the men strode over and swiftly withdrew the rod from next to me. It had not been tied to the boat in the first place. Half an hour later, asked to give out our GPS reading, I proudly read out the time instead of our coordinates.
By late morning, it had become clear that our luck was poor. Despite Bomal’s mastery with the net, we had caught too little bait to last us till the evening and the few fish that did bite were cheap, murk-brown grouper. Of the prized red galmaalu, we had only three. The men had had hauls worth more than 18,000 rupees all week but today’s catch, they guessed, would not fetch even a third of that. I could not help but feel responsible, particularly after they began to avoid eye-contact with me. When, compounding the misfortune, a long line snapped off just after noon, taking a sinker, hooks, and bait with it to the seabed, even Bomal began to be cold-shouldered for bringing me aboard.
But I was not quite done. On the way back to shore: one final ignominy. Leaping down from the top of the cabin, I stepped through the lid of one of their three Styrofoam containers and damaged one of the more expensive of their fish.
When we arrived at the harbour, not a word was spoken as the catch was unloaded and we paddled ashore in the canoe. Though earlier in the day I had promised to buy the men a bottle of arrack for having me aboard, by now I felt I owed them much more. Emptying my wallet of every one of its notes, I practically flung the money at my boatmates, turned on my heel, and fled the harbour, thinking that if these were the genes I had been passed on, perhaps it really was for the best that my ancestors had left the fishing trade when they did.
Excerpted with permission from Upon A Sleepless Isle: Travels in Sri Lanka by Bus, Cycle and Trishaw, Andrew Fidel Fernando, Pan Macmillan India.